Why the Caps traded top prospect Filip Forsberg

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

Fans love prospects. They’re young and full of promise and you don’t watch them play every day so the flaws are masked. Their ceiling is unlimited, they’ll always be ready to contribute “soon” and they’re cheap so your favorite team can employ its money elsewhere.

The Capitals decided this week that they needed another top-six forward and they used prospect Filip Forsberg as the chip in a trade for winger Martin Erat on Wednesday. That kind of move – young for old – will almost always be met with howls of protest. Forsberg was the No. 11 pick in the draft last June, a right wing with a cannon of a shot and a bright future who probably never should have fallen to Washington in the first place.

It felt like a coup when he did. But now Forsberg, ranked No. 2 in the organization by The Hockey News last month, is gone and fans will wonder if the return – a consistent veteran with eight straight seasons between 49 and 58 points – is enough. Erat is 31 and will have a salary-cap hit of $4.5 million next year. That extra cash will force the team to get creative if it wants to re-sign veteran center Mike Rebeiro.

“They’re never easy decisions. It takes some guts to do deals sometimes,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “But we have a real good group of pro scouts and amateur scouts and you sift through it and you ruminate over it at night and then you come back in, and you talk about it some more. And the vote was unanimous to do it.”

McPhee says he made his entire staff vote on the trade independently without any influence, write their decision on a piece of paper and turn it in. When he read through the returns the vote was apparently unanimous. And so Washington now has a new winger who clearly makes them better in the short term and a center prospect in Michael Latta, who is 21 and had eight goals and 26 assists with an astounding 184 penalty minutes for AHL Milwaukee this season.

“You’re here to win and we’ve been in that mode for a while,” McPhee said. “This is six years of trying to win a Cup. We had our rebuild phase. We’ve sort of rebuild things on the fly here and continue to make the playoffs while we’re doing it.”

Forsberg is no ordinary prospect. He was a potential top-three pick last summer for a reason, starring for Sweden’s World Juniors team and posting 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) for Leksand in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second division. That isn’t a particularly well-regarded league, however. At the same age, Nicklas Backstrom had 10 goals and 16 assists in the Swedish Elite League and followed that with 40 points at age 19. Marcus Johansson had five goals and five assists in the SEL at age 18 and 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) at 19. Both were ready to jump to the NHL for their age 20 season. Is Forsberg? That seems a stretch. McPhee’s thinking:

“We’d like to be able to add another top-six forward – if we can. And how soon will Forsberg be able to play?” McPhee said. “And the right side is pretty stacked right now. We’ve got [Alex] Ovechkin and [Troy] Brouwer and [Joel] Ward and [Eric] Fehr and [Tom] Wilson. It’s a pretty thick group there so can we add a player that can fill out the other side of the roster.”

You can quibble whether Erat was enough for a prospect with the value Forsberg possesses – even if he’s never proven himself at an elite level. But there was always a slight mismatch between what Forsberg will be when he reaches his ceiling – if may be a better word – and the current group of Caps in their prime: Ovechkin (27), Brooks Laich (29), Mike Green (27), Brouwer (27). Forsberg turns 19 on Aug. 13. It is unlikely he was cracking the roster next year at right wing and questionable if he’s contributing, let alone at a high level, in 2014-15. The organization appears to believe this next stretch of two or three seasons is its last, best hope to win with this group.

Nick Backstrom (25) leads a younger contingent with Karl Alzner (24), John Carlson (23), Braden Holtby (23), Michal Neuvirth (25) – maybe Dmitry Orlov (21). Wilson, last year’s other first-round pick, could be contributing next season at age 19/20. He is far more physically ready for the NHL than Forsberg. And, of course, the hope is top prospect Evegeny Kuznetsov will be over for the start of the 2014-15 season at age 22 – if not by the end of next year when the KHL season and the Sochi Olympics are over. Erat will still be under contract then as will most of the players mentioned earlier.

“With respect to giving up young players, you got to be careful doing that. But we’ve drafted well enough that we can do it. And I wanted to help this team now,” McPhee said. “And there’s another draft coming up and hopefully we’ll draft some more good players…And to be blunt, if there was something wrong with [Forsberg] I wouldn’t tell you anyway. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I don’t believe in beating up people when they leave. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. He’s a good, young prospect and he’s gonna play.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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